Burp

Once we had finished examining the many hundred Santa Claus figurines, it was time to find someone to whom we could give the film. I set up the laptop, slipped in the DVD and knocked on the door of the office. A junior member of staff appeared, looking bemused. It became apparent she had no English and there was no arranging my 5 words of Japanese into an explanation of what it was we wanted. I resorted to pointing at the screen whilst saying “sumimasen” in a reassuring tone.

I ran the film and her eyes flicked back and forth from the images to us. P and I were frenziedly engaged in synchronised pointing at the floor whilst saying “here, here!” with a vehemence that the staff member was finding unnerving. The key to communication with people who don’t speak English is, of course, volume and repetition as any fule no.

After a minute or so a shot of the exterior of the house appeared and the yen dropped for her. “Oh” she said. Then “oh” again. She fetched a colleague who had a peek at the screen and then said “oh”. They put their hands over their mouths and said “Aaaaaaahhh”. The colleague had a little English: “Here?” she asked “Yes, yes” said Penny and I, sounding like Teletubbies. “Oh” she said.

I extracted the disc and, with a bow, presented it to them. “For you, for you!” said Penny, her pointing finger now levelled menacingly at them.

They bowed and delivered what I took to be a extravagantly lengthy thank you. My work was done. I packed up the laptop, and headed for the loo before we began our journey back to our hotel. As I walked to the restroom a low rumble could just be heard. The sound was a warning; a tidal wave of Japanese formal gratitude was rising from the sea of politeness and roaring toward us.

When I came back whistling, I found Penny had been bundled into the bridal reception suite and given tea and biscuits. “How nice” I thought “some tea”. This, for a British person, is the very apogee of gratitude and was much appreciated.

At that point an employee appeared with an envelope. It had in it our entrance fee. That too was kind, but, we thought a bit too much like “fuss”. We demurred but they insisted. We were frightened to appear rude so accepted the return of our money. That was how it began: a monumental clash of culture. British people, as you may know, hate fuss. Many is the visitor to London who claims to find us “cool” and “aloof”. In most cases the relevant English person simply is just an unfriendly bastard. However, for the most part what counts as the sort of bare minimum interaction that sworn blood enemies might engage in on any street, in any city in, any country in the world would seem, to British eyes, a disproportionate and embarassing public display of affection. The Japanese, on the other hand,when given even minor cause for gratitude, feel the need to make as much fuss as their mortal frame allows.

Before we had finished our tea we had a message: The owner of the castle wished to meet us and was on his way over. He must, we suggested hopefully, be too busy to meet us. No, it appeared he had cleared his diary and wanted to see the film and meet us as soon as possible. He was some 10 miles away in Numata City. This boded ill. It meant a very great deal more fuss. P and I girded ourselves. The Japanese are delightful, effusive people. They are, frankly, an admirable example to us. The problem was that coming from a society full of surly misanthropes and people repressed to the point of explosion, we are simply ill-equipped to cope. 

A woman appeared and told us that she was the manager of the castle; A Miss Ono. She was, she said, delighted to meet us. We then spent several minutes bowing to each other. There were no words, she said, to describe how grateful they were that we had come all that way to deliver the film to them. This was worrying. We had not come to Japan for this reason alone and we were anxious to play that impression down. The plan we learned, had changed. Mr Hirai also owned an hotel in Numata and we were to go there for lunch. Miss Ono drove us to Numata chatting happily about her time in Wyoming whilst we gazed wistfully at the receding image of our hire car.

Arriving at the hotel we found Mrs Hirai sniffing oxygen from a little machine in the hotel lobby. She greeted us effusively and the bowing recommenced. Mr Hirai, an enormously dapper man, then appeared. Accompanied by Ms Ono and the Chief Receptionist there was an exchange of business cards followed by a brisk lunch at which the film was replayed. The Hirais had good English but relied upon Miss Ono to translate.

P, like any good British woman was experiencing some sensitivity about social class. She did not want the Hirais to think her family were members of the landed gentry and explained at agonising length that her family had merely rented the house for a number of years. Ms Ono listened carefully and then conveyed all this information to Mr Hirai. He looked impressed.He then formulated a question which, to P’s horror, translated as: “So, are you a member of the Royal Family?”

Mr H then turned his mind to just what fuss might be created. He wanted us to stay, he said, as his guests in the hotel that night. That, we said, was charming and very kind but we were already staying in an hotel. He looked hurt. How about the next day? We were driving, we told him, to Matsumoto which was some 200 miles away. “Ah!” he exclaimed. Mrs H would like to drive us there herself. The notion of Mrs Hirai having to do a  400 mile round trip was clean off the fuss scale. We were sorry, we said, but we had a hire car that had to be dropped off in Matsumoto and so we would have to drive ourselves. That was no problem, they would have a member of their staff drive our hire car to Matsumoto. At this point I began to whimper. Picking my way through a minefield of possible offence I persuaded then that that was simply too kind. Miss Ono reported that they wanted to find a way to thank us and they sat brooding on the topic.

After lunch they took us to a photo studio and we had a formal group photograph taken by their professional wedding photographer. The resulting picture was intended, surreally, go on display in the museum. The photographer did overtime to develop the image and the hotel manager got up early to hand deliver it to us the following day. All this kindness was beginning to make me fell slightly demented.

Over the next few days we had a number of phone calls asking, ominously, who our travel agents were. I had no idea why the Hirais wanted that information but it couldn’t be good. Arriving at our final destination: Okinawa, we had begun to relax. The Busena Terrace Hotel is pleasant seaside resort hotel with a very good French restaurant (now with real Frenchmen!) A smiling woman greeted us at reception, bowing as she moved towards us. She had been called by the Hirais. There followed a maelstrom of fuss which ended with us sat in the French Restaurant enjoying the onshore breeze and burping contentedly. The scary thing is I worry I could get used to fuss like that.

15 thoughts on “Burp”

  1. As a fellow Brit, I was cringing in embarrassment – yes, we really do hate the fuss, don’t we? I think that would have been enough to make any Brit feel uncomfortable (at best). Did you do the wave of the hand, over-friendly smile, and the “oh, no, really”s that are ingrained in our genetic makeup? I’m fairly certain that I would have run away, faking an urgent appointment!

  2. I’m halfway through James Clavell’s Shogun, based around an Englishman trapped in the alien Japanese environment. Have any of them committed seppuku in front of you yet?

  3. I think there may be a whole post in there somewhere about the fuss scale and it’s various levels.

    (BTW – I have wanted to reply to many of your comments lately, but they are not connected to an e-mail address like so many others… must be something about your blogger profile… ANYWAY – all this to say I would gladly adopt you AND P.)

  4. Oh FFS! Now I have to travel over to the dang castle to see this picture of the two of you! Glad to know they burdened you with their effusive thanks.

  5. Perhaps you now have a small taste of what it would be like if you WERE a member of the royal family. Can you imagine the fuss you’d have to tolerate on a continual basis? Youch!

  6. Wow, so fascinating. I think I would have been tempted if I was P to have answered to: “So, are you a member of the Royal Family?” with “Yes, I am one of Princess Diana’s sisters.” and seen the look on the woman’s face. priceless!

  7. I laughed till I cried imagining the two of you sitting there with the Japanese bowing over and over.
    You British are so much fun … lol

  8. I’m catching up here on the blogosphere, and am enjoying your adventures in Japan. i wish I knew you were going – I would have alerted my relatives who would have driven hundreds of miles to take you to a Starbucks.

  9. I love being British, but coping with all that fuss makes me cringe too.
    Its strange really, in personal social situations we simply can’t be doing with it all – drawing attention to our good deeds seems somehow showy and arrogant, and yet at most traditional public social occasions we go in for all the pomp and circumstance in a big way- take the Lord Mayor’s Parade, and royal weddings etc. Even enrolment or initiation ceremonies at most clubs and organisations in Britian – there’s a big sense of making a fuss, and we love it.
    I wonder why this is?

  10. Holy crap… I could get used to it.

    IN FACT, I SHOULD BE USED TO IT!!!

    WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING WRONG WITH MY STUPID LIFE THAT I’M NOT USED TO IT???

    that’s bullshit and needs to change.

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